Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time (Part I)

For the majority of my life as someone capable of understanding violence, I failed to see the point of pacifism in its most serious, ambitious sense. Granted, most of us would prefer not to have to resort to bloodshed, and if it did prove necessary we would be better off not taking pleasure in it, yet World War II always seemed a strong counterexample to following John Lennon’s suggestion. I would tell myself I had no objections in principle to society utilizing force to achieve what was truly a greater good. Those who scoffed at “the ends justify the means” only did so because they disapproved of certain ends caused by the means, thereby unwittingly proving that point.

I suspect at least a significant number of readers who affirm the above stance do so, reasonably enough, because pacifism’s spokespeople have not tended to maintain a respectable track record of practicality. The stock pacifist justification for refusing to fight even in self-defense is that of Harry Potter, for whose unwavering nonviolence to the point of risking more lives Lupin scolds him. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” “Why show people killing is unacceptable in society by killing them?”, and other such appeals to moral outrage derail the conversation before it can make any meaningful progress.

Meanwhile, the prominent voice for defensive violence fares no better in critical thinking. It has its own soundbites: “Don’t tread on me,” “Think of the children,” and all species of “They deserve it” rationales. If the error of strict pacifism is that it elevates a maxim (don’t kill no matter what) above victims’ lives, the sin of its opposite is a cruel disregard of the nuances of human psychology. A part of the pacifist thesis worth considering is that showing society’s aggressors the strength of our commitment to peace may, far from revealing exploitable weakness, give them reason to respect and even trust us. The skeptics have mostly ignored this.

Our goal, then, ought to be the transcending of these tunnel-vision biases. The most responsible replacement of dogmatic bumper-sticker policies is rational deliberation on the facts relevant to that which we value. Should it seem as if abandoning our hollow rationalizations for positions on this issue makes the task dauntingly complicated, we know we are doing something right, because if what we aim to optimize are real consequences for people’s well-being, we should afford care to thought that is proportional to the uncertainty of those consequences.

This should be common sense, but particularly in the domain of the ethics of violence, we have the all-too-human tendency to forget that what appears to be “cold logic” is the very instrument of justice Alan Turing used to assist the Allies’ victory over the Axis. Neither purely emotional nor exclusively rational means comprise the whole of ethical judgment, as Spock must have some value-based purpose to think for, and McCoy must have a system of discerning better ways to achieve what he values than others.

None of which settles the peace debate proper, you surely protest. We’ll come to that in time, although if we do this responsibly, the conclusion we reach will never be unduly certain, especially when history has never been in short supply of wrong answers. For today, I hope I have stressed the importance of method, lest the garbage put in become garbage out. Naturally, what I present here can never be totally free from its blind spots, yet we should — as people who, remember, desire a common vision in the most significant sense — find little controversial about the notion that identifying and interpreting the facts is better than talking past each other.

In Part II, we’ll consider what history can tell us about what best deters violence, in both the short- and long-term.